Elvis Alves is learning to love his brother despite his troubled past.
I knew something was wrong with my brother from the day he set the mattress on fire. My mother had put the mattress outside to “air out.” It smelled of stale urine; a byproduct of three young children who slept on the same bed and were yet to be trained not to urinate on it during the night. My siblings and I are very close in age. I am the oldest and am one year eleven months older than my brother who is the middle child. My brother and sister are even closer in age.
On the day of the incident, my brother carefully placed a dried twig in the open fire used to burn trash and, when lit, placed it on the mattress. The latter quickly engulfed with flame. I remember feeling the penetrating heat on my naked skin. The sensation caused me to freeze. I stood speechless. Fortunately, my mother noticed the deed committed by my arsonist brother and scrambled to out the potential inferno. There was a tub of water, that she had not yet emptied after washing clothes, located between the burning heap of trash and the mattress, which she used to douse the flame. A pond was also nearby—we raised ducks, among other animals—and its water became useful as my mother and some of our neighbors ferociously fought to out the flaming mattress.
I thought that my brother was in big trouble. My mother believed in and practiced the adage, “Spare the rod and spoil the child.” She became more severe in using spanking as a disciplinary measure after the departure of our father. At the time of the incident, our father was living in New York City and my mother felt doubly responsible to “keep us in check” in his absence. But she did not spank my brother for what he had done—after expending much energy in preventing a major catastrophe.
Later in the day, I over-heard my mother telling one of her close friends that she was both relieved and grateful that my brother and I did not get burnt in the fire or that the house in which we lived, and which was made of wood, did not catch fire.
This was not the first time that my brother was the recipient of leniency at the hands of our parents. What I perceived as special treatment continued with our move from Guyana to Brooklyn, New York in 1988. I was nine years old, my brother seven and my sister six.
I had a very difficult time adjusting to life in a new country. My siblings experienced a similar scenario but I was more demonstrative in expressing the toll that the move had taken on me. I constantly cried and refused to eat. When these behaviors persisted, my father considered sending me back to Guyana. My mother dissuaded him from doing so. Meanwhile, my brother was able to champion through the downside of the move. He even ridiculed me for being a cry baby and for not being grateful enough of the fact that we no longer lived in a rural village that lacked many of the amenities of New York City. For this show of stoic character, he quickly became the favorite son of my father.
The cozy relationship between father and son spanned the prepubescent period of the latter. Things drastically changed when my brother became a teenager and entered high school. He started hanging out with a rough crowd and would wear blue outfits (symbol of the Crips Gang). My brother started smoking marijuana and developed a close relationship with the bottle. Then there was the day when my mother decided to clean the closet in the room that I shared with him and found a gun and a bag of marijuana tucked away in its far corner. Crying, she dumped the content of the packet in the toilet and begged him to get rid of the gun. Run-ins with the law were also frequent. Driving while drunk, attacking a stranger with a baseball bat, and truancy were some of the shenanigans my brother routinely involved himself in. Similarly, his hormones ran wild. He took advantage of the fact that both of our parents worked during the day and used our home to orchestrate liaisons with girls.
During this period of upheaval in my brother’s life and the negative effects it wrought on my parents, I excelled in school. I consciously did not want to cause our parents any trouble. At the end of high school, I earned a full scholarship to a private liberal arts college in upstate New York. Moving away from home to attend college afforded me a reprieve from the caustic atmosphere that my brother and his antics instituted in our familial life. It was also during this time that my parents, especially my father, began to tell me that they were proud of my achievements. I was the first in my family to attend college.
My brother declared that college was not part of his future. He graduated from high school two years after me and decided to head to the Navy. He was dismissed from boot camp and returned home to continue on a path of self destruction.
My brother was able to turn his life around for the good—even though he continues to battle some of his demons. I credit my parents’ perseverance in expressing deep love and concern for him for the change. For one, even though he put them through hell, they refused to kick him out of their home or abandon him in times of need. He is now the father of two young boys. I am childless and earned two degrees of higher education by the age of twenty six. Moreover, I have skills that are marketable and things continuously seem to be on the upside for me. Yet still, I cannot ignore the nagging feeling of being robbed of attention that my parents were supposed to have shown toward me but that deflected toward my brother because of his behaviors.
I think that this feeling of discord is why I do not respond when my brother says “I love you” to me, either in person or at the end of a phone conversation. I feel uncomfortable repeating this phrase to him. So I often say “Thank you.” I believe that my brother is more comfortable saying the phrase because he knows what love is. It was, and continues to be shown to him by our parents. As for me, I intend to start saying the phrase to him (one day, hopefully soon) but know that it is better to show love than simply say it without really meaning it, a lesson I too learned from our parents.